Formed in 1913 and organized in 1916 as the 15th New York Army National Guard, Harlem’s Hell Fighters refers to the 369th Infantry Regiment. This historical Afro-American unit comprised primarily of black soldiers of Negro descent, commanded by both black and white officers. Coming under the control and authority of the Federal Government in 1917, the brigade initially served New York before arriving in Brest later that year. In the following month, Harlem’s Hell Fighters became part of the provisional 93rd Division and carried on with its stringent training schedules under French commanding officers.
Self-proclaimed as ‘Men of Bronze’, the soldiers of the 369th Infantry Regiment were widely acknowledged as men of valor. The story of their success was consistent and unmatchable by any other contemporary regiments. A stunning war record fetched them numerous unit citations along with several individual recognitions from the French government. This military history essay is going to outline the role of non-commissioned officers in the American Army between 1865 and 1925 with particular emphasis on Harlem’s Hell Fighters.
A significant amount of research initiatives has been undertaken by experts to study the nature of warfare in the beginning of the twentieth century. The most important outcome of these research works is the unification of different aspects of American socio-political life. The history of Harlem’s Hell Fighters is far from being just an ordinary tale of military achievements – it is in fact a story of American culture in broad terms. Frequently referred to as the Jazz era, the decade of 1910s witnessed an upsurge in fundamentalist religious and social norms.
This phenomenon can be seen as a reaction to the intellectual revolution that was set in motion by the abrupt changes in American morale, especially that of the youth. Intellectual figures such as H. L. Mencken, F. Scott Fitzgerald and a few others earned themselves a heroic status by outspokenly pointing out the flaws of America’s ethical degradation (Cincotta, p. 85). However, it is worth noting that the United States of America during the First World War was yet to become a military force to reckon with.
The dominating aura of America that we are so accustomed to seeing now-a-days was in its nascent as far as economic independence was concerned. The cultural identity of the nation was far less recognizable than that of many European countries. A subtle, ongoing rivalry between the emerging American film industry and the established European movie companies had been developing throughout this period, preparing the stage for socio-political reordering of power, which was eventually reflected in the story of Harlem’s Hell Fighters battling in France under the French command.
Resultantly, America was tagged as a country propagating aggression and violence not just within, but also in remote territories. To make matters worse, racial issues surfaced time and again as both black and white soldiers were deployed in various regiments. Even though the nation boasted of a commendable Navy, the U. S. Army lacked intelligence or foresight in effectively control large bodies of troops. Unlike the British, Italian and French commanders, the U. S. Army officers were not alert enough to track down nuances of modern warfare.
Hence, they had to be content with supplying soldiers to foreign shores. Afro-American migration was a mentionable phenomenon between 1910 and 1930. A large number of black population migrated from the South to the North for the sake of self-assessment. Majority of them settled in urban areas of Chicago and Detroit since those places promised secured living and job opportunities. Moreover, personal freedom was also a matter of serious concern in those turbulent times. Unlike many other cities, Chicago and Detroit were yet to come under the virulence of racism and other malpractices.
With the formation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1910 by W. E. B. DuBois and other intellectuals, the black demographics found a platform to voice their demands and grievances. This event also heralded an Afro-American literary and artistic movement known as the “Harlem Renaissance”, turning to the middle-class values of American life in general (Cincotta, p. 86). In order to trace the role of non-commissioned officers in the history of the U. S. Army, we need to go back to the times of President Johnson in the mid-1860s.
The longstanding political conflict between the North and the South came to the fore as the Congress did not allow seats for the Southern legislators in the House of Representatives or in the U. S. Senate. A radical reconstructive method was taken by the Congress to appease the South. In fact a portion of the Congress was always vocal for the rights of the black population and they gained favor of the sensible civil fraternity. The civil rights bill passed by the Congress in July 1866 was aimed at sorting out the racial issues surrounding the blacks.
It was particularly harsh on that section of the Southern legislators who were reluctant to give the status of U. S. citizenship to blacks. The 14th Amendment to the Constitution clearly stated, “All persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the states in which they reside. ” (Cincotta, p. 61) As expected, this Amendment was not welcomed by the Southern legislators, with the exception of Tennessee.
The situation of the blacks went from bad to worse as they were imposed several humiliating provisions including ‘black codes’ by the state legislators. Gauging the seriousness of the deteriorating condition, many from the North intervened into the matter to protect the fundamental rights of the black population. It was reflected in the Reconstruction Act of March 1867, which, somewhat liberally, provided choice to states in the South in terms of forming civil administrations in order to shun the possibilities of military rules.
The 15th Amendment was finally signed by state legislators in 1870, making the provision for “The rights of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any state on account of race, color or previous condition of servitude. ” (Cincotta, p. 61) Racism, however, continued to grow underneath the apparently peaceful demeanor of governmental proceedings. What we are going to find in the history of Harlem’s Hell Fighters had its seed sown in the acts of numerous federal army officers who were often accused of the ill-practice of racism.
Blacks underwent a dreadful chain of events that pushed them back to square one, so to speak. On one hand, they sought the protective refuge of the whites hailing from the North against the whites hailing from the South. On the other hand, the Southern whites kept on terrorizing the blacks in an effort to prevent them from exercising their civil rights. Thus we have seen how the ignominy of racism acted as a catalyst for the blacks to realize their true worth as warriors. In the beginning of the twentieth century, the U. S.
Army was literally stripped off the much required leadership qualities until the reign of Colonel Hayward, who, by dint of perseverance and authority, gave direction to the Harlem’s Hell Fighters fighting abroad. Similarly, after assuming office for the second time in 1805, Jefferson opted for a diplomatic stance and withdrew military assistance in the battle between Great Britain and France. The non-commissioned American officers were disgraced at the hands of their British counterparts when the British sailors tracked down the U. S. vessels to flaunt their might (Cincotta, p.
39). However, the 1846 war with Mexico on the occupancy of Texas border proved to be a learning lesson for the U. S. military personnel. By actually participating in the war, the American officers were thoroughly trained about the know-how of modern warfare. This training later on proved beneficial for the United States during the Civil War (Cincotta, p. 54). History repeated itself nearly 150 years later. Stephen L. Harris (2005, p. 23) in his chronicle of Harlem’s Hell Fighters discusses the impact of the House of Representatives on the 25th Infantry of the U.
S. Army. The Afro-American soldiers of this regiment allegedly shot a Mexican bartender dead and injured a white police officer. The entire issue was racially colored as the citizens were irked by an attempted rape by one of the black soldiers. Albeit the black regiment was asked to stay off the troubled streets by its commander, the Brownsville mayor accused the regiment of firing from military weapons. Empty bullet casing was presented as evidence before the War Department. This incident was reiterated in 1917 as the battle raged on the streets of Houston.
Military arms and ammunitions were used profusely by the assailants. The violent mob went completely out of control as the Third Battalion could not prevent them from snatching rifles, ammunition and bayonets from the storage room. Their targets arrayed from police personnel to innocent conductors and motormen. What was really intimidating was that full-fledged military weapons were handed out as the mob attacked the soldiers and assumed control of public places (Harris, p. 108-109). The black soldiers of the Federal Army were often charged with lack of discipline in the events of international wars.
It was evident during the Civil War in 1861 with the formation of the 4th Alabama regiment and Rough Riders. Similar situations occurred during the fighting in Cuba when Confederate General Joe Wheeler denied taking charge of the shipping. Unforeseen circumstances in the camps also resulted in mayhem among the 165th regiment. An outbreak of measles was followed by an open assault on the New York sentries. It was the 165th unit which was entrusted with maintaining the discipline in the camp (Harris, p. 110).
Lasting for more than six months, arguably the longest phase of war for any single American unit, there were nearly 1500 casualties for the 369th Infantry Regiment. While other regiments were engaged in internal battles, they were deployed in French provinces of Belleau Wood and Chateau-Thierry. The term ‘Hell Fighters’ was given by their enemies for their stupendous courage and daring attitude. However, the fact that the concerned Army authorities did very little to replace the wounded soldiers of the regiment subsequently proved to be the undoing of soldiers.
The frontline was totally exhausted both physically and psychologically. Moreover, disciplinary problems began showing up because of the hierarchical setup of the unit. The experienced and most loyal soldiers had to suffer from mortal wounds whereas fresh members were shielded from direct lines of attack. There is no denying the fact that Harlem’s Hell Fighters deserve a special mentioning in the history of American warfare for their bravery and skills. As a token of this regiment’s feats in France, numerous badges were made to celebrate their uniqueness.
There were particular unit insignias as well as charge-specific insignias, all symbolizing the infallible spirit of the brigade. The engrossing story of Harlem’s Hell Fighters presents a piece of history which is to be shared not just by historians for the mere sake of data accumulation, but also by students who are interested in tracing the ever-lasting tale of bravery, bigotry and music in a changing world. References Cincotta, H. (Ed. ). (1994). An Outline of American History. Stockholm: United States Information Agency. Harris, S. L. (2005). Harlem’s hell fighters: the African-American 369th Infantry in World War I. Dulles: Brassey’s.
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